By BRIAN LANDMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 19, 2000
CLEVELAND -- At the risk of sounding cliched, most coaches insist a senior point guard is the most vital component to a team's NCAA Tournament run.
Say hello to Syracuse's Jason Hart; he's Exhibit 1.
With less than a minute left in a tie game against Kentucky in the NCAA Midwest Region second round Saturday afternoon, Hart came up with a critical defensive play then set up Preston Shumpert's jumper that put the Orangemen ahead. Syracuse withstood two desperate Kentucky shots in the final seconds to eke out a 52-50 win at the Goodman Arena.
"This is a game two or three years ago, Jason Hart would probably have gotten discouraged and frustrated and wouldn't have been able to make those plays at the end," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said.
And if that were the case, the No. 4-seeded Orangemen (26-5) would be returning home instead of heading to Auburn Hills, Mich., for a shot at top seed Michigan State in the Sweet 16.
Kentucky, despite its depleted ranks and being cast in the unfamiliar role of "David" instead of "Goliath" by coach Tubby Smith, appeared to have control of the game.
After Syracuse center Etan Thomas fouled out with 3:46 left, the No. 5-seeded Wildcats (23-10) exploited their size advantage to erase a three-point deficit and tied the score 50-50. They then forced a turnover and took a timeout to set a play.
Hart stole the scene.
As junior point guard Saul Smith penetrated Syracuse's 2-3 zone, Hart got his hand on the ball to force a held ball and return it to Syracuse on the alternate possession with 51.2 seconds left.
"I saw him coming," Hart said. "I knew he wanted to drive and I stepped up and put my hand in there."
He then used his savvy on the other end, driving the lane on the left and slinging a perfect bounce pass across court to a wide-open Shumpert on the baseline.
"The ball came to me and I just tried to step up and knock it down," said Shumpert, a sophomore forward and designated shooter off the bench. "I didn't really shoot well in the second half (1 of 8 at that point), but I tried to step up and knock that shot down with confidence."
Kentucky still had 36.8 seconds left and, after a harried attempt to get off a shot, called a timeout with 9 seconds on the shot clock. With Thomas, one of the nation's top shot blockers, on the bench, the Wildcats looked to freshman guard Keith Bogans to drive to the basket.
"I might be young, but I want the ball in that situation," he said.
Syracuse senior forward Ryan Blackwell, however, used all 6 feet, 8 inches and 227 pounds of his athletic frame to prevent Bogans from tying the score. "I got into his body a little bit and I think that got him off balance a little bit and made him take a tough shot," he said.
Bogans, who wanted a foul called, shot an air ball. Kentucky forward Tayshaun Prince caught the ball and put up an off-balance desperation shot.
"I knew the shot was going to be difficult for Keith to make because guys were around him," Prince said. "The key was to go to the offensive glass. I couldn't tell how much time was left. The key was to get it up on the rim."
He did that.
The ball tantalizingly danced across the front of the rim and fell off harmlessly as time expired. Tubby Smith said he was proud of his undermanned team and the loss had nothing to do with its heart, but everything to do with Syracuse's Hart.
"He's a veteran, senior player who understands the game and is confident in his ability to make plays," Smith said. "He's been the catalyst for their success all year long and really for the last few years. He made big, big plays. Those are the kind of plays seasoned, veteran, experienced players make."
MICHIGAN STATE 73, UTAH 61: Michigan State senior point guard Mateen Cleaves isn't known for his outside shooting. It's his most-often cited, perhaps lone, weakness.
"People are going to say, I can't shoot, but if I get an open shot, I'm going to shoot it," he said.
You know what? He's got some touch.
He hit 7 of 14 shots, including a season-best 4 of 7 from three-point range, for a game-high 21 points to rally the top-seeded Spartans, who trailed at halftime for the first time all season.
The injury-plagued Utes (23-9), riding senior forwards Hanno Mottola and Alex Jensen, took a 35-32 lead at the break.
"We did not do a good job on defense in the first half," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, referring to Utah's torrid 56.5 percent shooting from the field.
He let his Spartans (28-7) hear about it.
"A lot of it I can't share with you," Cleaves said with a smile when asked about Izzo's halftime speech. "He challenged us. They had great execution in the first half, but we didn't play the defense we've been playing all year. He got into everybody's face."
"When he does get mad, it makes him a better player," Izzo said, glancing at his star playmaker, "so he's an easy guy to challenge and he's an easy guy to believe in because he's done it game in, game out, year in, year out."
Utah hit its first four second-half shots and matched its largest lead, 43-37, but then Cleaves took charge. His nifty behind-the-back pass set up a lay-in by Andre Hutson, then he followed with a three-pointer and a driving scoop to give his team a 44-43 lead.
With his team up 50-47 a few moments later, Cleaves fed A.J. Granger for a three-pointer and capped a decisive 11-3 run with his second three-pointer of the half. After he hit that, he turned down court and punched his fists in the air.
"Cleaves stung us tonight," said Utah coach Rick Majerus, who added that the Spartans have the look of a national champion. "We tried to make Cleaves score. He proved it to us."
But did he prove it to the rest of his critics?
"I doubt it; I doubt it," Cleaves said. "It was just one of those hot games, they'll say. But I really don't try to silence the critics. I don't really care what people say about my shot or my game. I'm here to try to help my team win games."
UCLA 105, MARYLAND 70: The Bruins probably haven't looked this dominant since guys named Alcindor and Walton were wearing blue and gold
UCLA's late-season roll reached its peak as it put on a stunning offensive display. The sixth-seeded Bruins connected on six alley-oops and a school-record 14 three-pointers.
Earl Watson had 17 points and a school-record 16 assists for UCLA (21-11).
UCLA shot 74 percent before the final minutes and also played impressive defense against the Terrapins (25-10).
Maryland coach Gary Williams took three timeouts before the first TV timeout of the second half.
IOWA STATE 79, AUBURN 60: All-America forward Marcus Fizer fought off a frustrating first half to carry the Cyclones into the round of 16.
Fizer, held without a field goal for the first 17 minutes, scored 16 of his 22 points in the second half.
Stevie Johnson added 21 points for Iowa State (31-5), which wasn't expected to be this good back in November.
The Cyclones, picked to finish last in the Big 12, used a 19-4 run midway through the second half.
"It feels great to prove to the people that we're better than what they expected," Cyclones guard Kantrail Horton said.